Ten of Swords

Last summer when I unpacked a cardboard box after moving into a new apartment, I stumbled on a thick moleskin notebook, its yellowing edges muscling against a soggy Bon Jovi cassette cover. When I picked it up, a high school friend’s loopy handwriting transported me back to Germany, fifteen years ago, to her first encounter with tarot cards.

tarot

I considered the risk of tarot readings. Perhaps the biggest one is the potential for fraud, especially considering how reading cards isn’t a regulated profession, at best passed down from generation to generation.”

The entry extended five pages, detailing the day my friends and I had a fortunetelling session with one of the girls’ elder sisters, whom I vaguely remember dropped one nugget of chilling interpretation after another to in an effort to mess with us. Over the years, I’ve thrown away similar notebooks since they were filled with meaningless teenage memorabilia. I was, however, glad this one still existed, because the friend who wrote in it had died unexpectedly, making the notebook my only item to remember her by. More surprisingly though, the cards may or may not have predicted her death.

During a time when we had colorful braces strapped to our mouths and an obsession with Spice Girls edition deodorants, my friends and I started writing one another in notebooks, each taking turns chronicling our clichéd days. I suppose it was a forerunner of Facebook. Initially, the ‘letter-books’ were meant to bring our group of friends closer, by sharing intimate thoughts and secrets. But inevitably, it became an outlet of teen angst, pages riddled with lyrics of desolating alternative rock songs, adorations of our crushes, fears of failing the school year and frustrations with parents who grounded us for sneaking out at night.

In a rather dubious development, the notebooks fueled our competitiveness, leading us to come up with creative ideas in order to make our own entries stand out. These ranged from harmless experiments, such as flirting with a teacher to improve grades and assembling a remarkable selection of foods mixed with cannabis to rather questionable activities like speed-dating random guys who took us on road trips into neighboring towns and seducing bar owners in the hopes of gaining entry to an otherwise 18-and-over establishment.

Our introduction to tarot started innocently enough, with a friend announcing that her older sister, a senior, had taken up tarot and would offer us a free reading. As chronicled by my friend, we sat on the floor, forming a circle around the cards, with Tupac droning in the background.

The room was overstuffed with makeup and glossy women’s magazines and with their anime-like illustrations; the cards had a cheap knock-off air to them. Still, the day proved nothing short of alluring. While my friends and I asked our questions one by one, the thrill of the paranormal ravaged through us. That and the prospect of having something noteworthy to report on.

Most of us asked meaningless and superficial questions like ‘Will I be wealthy?’ or ‘Will I become a star?’ Regardless of what invented interpretation my friend’s sister jolted out, we were hooked. My friend’s turn came and she asked whether one of us would be dead within the next ten years. We exchanged a quick glance before fixing our eyes on the anime-like drawing of a skeleton riding a white horse, the ten of swords.

The inspiration for this sort of question could have arose in the horror movies we used to watch, in which at least one high school kid dies by the time of graduation or soon afterward. We were all ears as my friend’s sister interpreted the card, her dark eyes emanating a perfect somber atmosphere. Apparently, the ten of swords symbolizes sudden endings, though not necessarily physical death. Some of us chimed in with our own analysis, which according to the entry encompassed rebirth and the end of the world. We did not speculate who would die first, at least not verbally.

For the following weeks, the occult became our newest obsession, each of us thirsty to uncover any prearranged paths we were meant to follow. To satisfy our curiosity, we would meet up under a tree in the local park, at times staying until the final hours of dusk to try out an array of things we could get our hands on such as numerology, palmistry and plastic crystals. I suspect the neglected inner child in us came alive during those instances, tugging at the cloud of illusion one last time, before adulthood arrived. In the face of fate, none of our shortcomings mattered, hence we were equally doomed. However, in typical teenage style, very soon, my friends and I were back to romancing boys and chasing new small-town adventures.

A decade later, I had another tarot reading. After a family member died unexpectedly and under dubious circumstances, I was seeking answers, desperately exploring all means available. I found a lady on Fiverr with A+ reviews and whose warm eyes inspired confidence. I went ahead and mailed her my date of birth and the questions I had regarding this family member.

While I waited for her report, I considered the risks of tarot readings. Perhaps the biggest one is the potential for fraud, especially considering how reading cards isn’t a regulated profession, at best passed down from generation to generation. Fortunately, my tarot reader was courteous and, to my surprise, spot-on about the circumstances surrounding my family member’s death, as affirmed later by the autopsy results.

She was also kind enough to address my questions about tarot readings in general, explaining how the tarot deck was like a snapshot of possible outcomes if everything stayed the same. If used properly, tarot cards were powerful self-help tools, drawing attention to the important elements in our lives and clarifying our feelings about them. Therefore, tarot cards can be regarded as awareness-enhancers, which, similar to works of art, bridge the conscious and subconscious worlds, provide inspiration, prompting us to look at something in a new way. For me, the cards were a consolation, a way to find closure and peace. The notebook served as a reminder that regardless of our tendency to picture ourselves the sole creators of our destiny, life is full of coincidences.

Or is it?

On the last page of the notebook, in the high school handwriting of my lost friend was a quote by Jawaharlal Nehru, the former prime minister of India. It said, “Life is a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

Ana Prundaru’s visval and literary work can be found in Gargoyle, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Calyx. Originally from Bucharest, Romania, she currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

Deep Ellum

I have a feeling that one day an Uber driver is going to say something that unlocks my understanding of my place in the universe. Some offhand comment that makes all the pieces of my life seem like part of the same thing. Oh, I’ll think when he says it. That’s what all this random shit has had in common. I am sure that this information will come from a stranger. Every time I get into an Uber I think, are you him?

uber

Most of our fights happen in our heads. Most of our love happens there, too.”

Friday night. My first Uber driver took me from one side of uptown Dallas to the other. $4.75. My friend Matt was back from Los Angeles and he was waiting for me at the Uptown Pub. I was getting drinks with Matt and then meeting some friends at a concert in Deep Ellum. The Uber ride took five minutes. The driver, Will, in a Blue BMW X1, asked if I was going to watch football this weekend. He looked at me in the rearview mirror, a middle-aged black man with thick black glasses. His car smelled like old fast food. Purple tint was peeling off the back window. I lied and said yes just to keep the conversation moving. I looked out the window at all the uptown people. Girls with fake diamonds on the asses of their jeans.

“I’m in a fantasy league,” I said.

“What is that?” he said. “Fantasy.”

I got the feeling he had been wondering for a long time. I didn’t know how to explain it to him. I barely understood it myself.

“It’s a whole thing,” I said, and that seemed to be enough. He nodded and moved the map around on his phone. My destination was coming up on the left.

My wife, J texted me. She had a headache and wasn’t coming to the concert. I texted back, “Feel better,” but what I was really thinking was of course she’s not coming, she never comes, I am basically living my life alone.

“I’m a Packs man,” my Uber driver said to my reflection in the rearview mirror.

I thought he said Pac Man.

“What?”

“Packs man. The Packers. But I’m not optimistic.”

“You never know,” I said. I didn’t know what we were talking about.

“Maybe I should try this fantasy of yours.”

“Maybe,” I said. “It doesn’t seem to be working out very well for me.”

Will dropped me off outside the pub. He said, “Good luck,” and I realized he was talking about fantasy football. I gave him a five-star review and found Matt in the back corner of the pub. I ordered a shot of Makers and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Then I ordered another Makers. Matt told me about his apartment. People are always telling each other about their apartments. And then we talked about the future of interactive advertising. I asked Matt if he wanted to go to a concert with me. I didn’t want to go alone. There was a running joke that I’d made my wife up. Matt said he couldn’t go. He was meeting some friends for dinner at the Mexican place across the street. I felt a stab of rejection and swallowed a little more whisky. I wished I hadn’t asked.

My second Uber driver picked me up in the CVS parking lot. I thought it would be easier for him to pick me up there but I was wrong and he circled the block twice before he found me. Harold. Red Hyundai Sonata.

“Working late?” Harold said. He was also a middle-aged black man but he wasn’t wearing glasses. Was every Uber driver in Dallas a middle-aged black man who may or may not wear glasses? I could tell from the way Harold used his blinkers that he was a thoughtful man.

“Just met some friends,” I said, trying to find where to plug in my seatbelt. “Now I’m meeting some other friends.”

I wanted Harold to think I had about a million friends.

“Elm Street?” He said, poking at his windshield-mounted phone.

I nodded. “Deep Ellum.”

We drove across town. $5.06. The cars changed from Audis to Toyotas. The road got bumpier and narrower. Homeless people shuffled from trashcan to trashcan pretending to accomplish tasks. Completing their rounds. I said it was a relief to get out of Uptown.

“Why’s that?” Harold asked.

“These SMU kids with their Porsches and their Mercedes, man.”

He nodded.

“The guy I picked up before you said his parents gave him seventeen million dollars to help him get started out of college.”

“Right,” I said. “That.”

“My parents gave me a slap on the ass and a good luck.”

“Same here,” I said. Actually my parents gave me ten thousand dollars and a used Honda Accord but still I felt closer to Harold than I did to a guy with seventeen million dollars. Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit that this mediocre life I’d put together was given a head start.

“You look like you’re doing alright for yourself,” I said. I looked around his car like it was proof. The leather seats.

Harold shrugged.

“People do what money tells them to do,” Harold said. “It’s like training a dog. We repeat the behaviors we’re rewarded for.”

“I started working in advertising six years ago,” I said. “Now I’ll never get out.”

Harold snapped his fingers. “There you go.”

We only drove for ten minutes but by the time we got to Deep Ellum it was dark. The clubs on Main Street were glowing. Deep Ellum smells like hot sugar and cigarettes. A smell that reminds me of the Texas State Fair. Clubs keep their doors open to lure people inside. Walking down Main Street is like scrolling through the radio. Rock, Jazz, Hardcore, Folk, Country. Cars drive five miles an hour and people take their time crossing the street. My friend was playing a show at Club Dada. I went inside and bought a drink at the bar. Jack and Coke in a clear plastic cup. I gave Harold a five-star review. The place was mostly empty. Someone slapped me on the back and I turned around and it was Jordan.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” I said.

We walked to 7-Eleven and bought a pack of cigarettes. We missed the whole show standing outside smoking. We talked about God and pre-marital sex. Jordan said that he didn’t want his kids to grow up being afraid of things that didn’t matter. I asked Jordan if he was an atheist now. He used to be a pastor. He said yes, he was an atheist now. I said I didn’t think he was an atheist and he said he didn’t think he was an atheist either. For some reason he just wanted to hear himself say that he was.

I texted J that I loved her and she texted back I love you too. Most of our fights happen inside our heads. Most of our love happens there, too. Acts of imagination and fantasy.

Jordan left and I went back inside the club. A band was playing that I’d never heard of and would never hear of again. Five people were watching. I drank a lot of vodka. The lead singer thanked people for coming out. Somebody whistled from the back of the room. The last song they played was as good as anything I’d ever heard on the radio, something really special.

My third Uber driver picked me up outside the club. Chun, White Nissan Pathfinder. A middle-aged Taiwanese man in a form-fitting suit. He asked why I was going home so early. It was 1:30 am.

I said, “Is this early?”

He said yes, this was very early. “Want me to drop you off there?”

He pointed to a club with shiny silver walls. I asked if it was a strip club. He said no, it was a regular club. “But you can find plenty of girls to fuck there no problem,” He said.

“Oh,” I said. “No thanks.”

He shrugged and sped up onto the highway.

“You’re smart,” Chun said. “You have to be careful not to fuck too much. My wife and I fucked too much. Then she couldn’t get pregnant. I used up all my sperm. So we stopped having sex for three months while I practiced karate. Then, first try, she gets pregnant. Now we have a little boy. Three years old.”

I said, “Wow.”

“Do you want to know the secret to having a boy?” He said.

I said okay.

“Wife on top. That is the secret to having a boy. Wife on top. Do you understand what I am telling you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Wife on top.”

He nodded.

“And do you want to know how to have a girl?”

I said yes.

“Doggie style,” He said. “You must fuck doggie style.”

“Doggie style,” I repeated.

“It is the only way.”

“Where did you get this information?” I asked.

“Tai Pei,” he said. “It’s all true. Now I’m driving Uber to pay for college for my son. I am saving up two hundred thousand dollars.”

I said, “Wow.”

I rolled down the window and took deep breaths of the outside air. My fingers smelled like cigarettes. The air outside smelled like cigarettes but I knew that was just because the inside of my nose smelled like cigarettes and so did the inside of my mouth and probably the inside of my body. Maybe something nearby was on fire. The vodka burned inside my stomach. I felt good about how everything in my life was turning out. It comes to you like that. Out of the blue. For no reason.

I hoped J was still awake.

Chun pulled into my apartment complex. For the first time in awhile I thought about how nice my apartment complex was. Full of SMU students who drive Porches and Mercedes. We all share an address. Before Chun let me out of the car he turned around. “Tell me. How do you make a boy?”

I said, “The wife on top.” The words felt sticky in my mouth.

“Very good,” he said. “Now tell me. How do you make a girl?”

“Doggie style,” I said. “You make a girl Doggie style.”

“Yes,” he said. Smiled. “Doggie style. Very good. Now you will never forget.”

Mike Nagel’s work has appeared in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill, and The Paris Review Daily.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

Ghost Toast

As a child growing up in South Africa, my toast was made almost exclusively with whole wheat bread. It was coarse and rustic; better toast than I have tasted anywhere since. I loved butter and fig jam, or butter with Anchovette paste which always tasted better when my mother cut my toast into “fingers.” My other favorites were dark, pungent Marmite and hard yellow cheese covered with a thin film of strawberry jam. On Saturday mornings, my toast was usually made from the leftover light, white, slightly sweet challah bread that graced the Shabbat table the night before, best with butter and honey.

toast

Inhaling deeply, the smell of past-tense toast inexplicably stirred in me a turmoil of all-at-once emotions: a melancholy ache for times and places and people long past; a joyful lurch for my solitude; gratitude for family and the warmth of a kitchen where I can return .”

After college, I spent a year on a kibbutz where we would gather around standard-issue electric heaters repurposed to toast slices of white bread we had ferreted from the communal dining room earlier in the day. We’d burn them to a golden crisp and spread the hot toast with butter and cinnamon sugar or hashachar ha’ole, a sweet chocolate spread.

As a young working woman, I’d swig my coffee and shove toast down my gullet while rushing to catch the bus. Burned, under-done, dry or buttered. No matter. Sometimes it was so gravelly it would scratch just one side of my throat going down, and leave it feeling raw and sore for the rest of the day.

Married with children now, it’s neither the toast nor the toppings that gets me.

It first happened when my kids were young, post-whirlwind, after the morning rush to school. After the pets had been fed, after schedules discussed, forms signed, arguments mediated, lunches packed, milk splashed from bowls of Cheerios, toast toasted and coffee slurped against the backdrop of All Things Considered. On the drive home, my shoulders still up around my earlobes, I’d turn the music from their favorite to mine. I’d let out a long, slow, quivery breath, feeling like I’d already completed a day’s work by the time I step through the back door and into the kitchen, clanking my keys onto the counter.

That’s when it would hit me: the lingering aroma of ghost toast. Inhaling deeply, the smell of past-tense toast inexplicably stirred in me a turmoil of all-at-once emotions: a melancholy ache for times and places and people long past; a joyful lurch for my solitude; gratitude for family and the warmth of a kitchen where I can return.

My children are teenagers now, our breakfast routine though still rushed has mellowed. But when the house is finally quiet, the sun streaming through the window, the dog peacefully basking in its warmth, the cat lazing alongside the dirty breakfast plates and cups poised like a still-life on the counter and all around me is splendid silence, there it is: the after-aroma of toast already toasted, already buttered, eaten and gone.

It’s scent reminds me that moments become months, that life passes by. In the blur of hundreds of hurried mornings, the essence of after-toast captures what is ephemeral.

Nina Kavin grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and now lives in Evanston, Illinois. This is her first published piece.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

Spoils of War

I first saw the unlucky number 169 taunting me in the newspaper on July 2, 1970 under the headline, “Results of Draft Lottery for Those Born in 1951.”  Of course 169 was unlucky. It’s 13 squared. Worse, it was not a high enough number for me to exclude the calamity of being drafted after I graduated college. The induction possibilities ran from 1 (likeliest) to 365 (unlikeliest).

spoils of war

He had been my Greatest Generation father. Now maybe he wasn’t.”

I was 19 years old and barely surviving college. Scared of heights and lacking alcohol-infused courage, I had already chickened out of my fraternity’s water tower climb. I couldn’t imagine tumbling into the basic training rabbit hole, populated with sadistic drill sergeants and teeming with opportunities to become maimed, mentally or physically, by live bullet obstacle courses and 50-mile hikes. If I survived boot camp, there would be a possible trip to Vietnam. Even the National Guard option, the best case scenario in my mind, would be a direct grenade hit to a smooth young adult existence with six months of active duty and five years of potential call-ups.

I turned to my father for solace regarding my lottery number. He was a World War Two veteran. But he was a vet with no front yard flagpole, so I didn’t expect him to go patriotic on me. He said, “Don’t worry. The way your left foot sticks out, you’ll never pass a physical. Then he introduced a backup plan. “I have connections. We’ll find some way to keep you out.”

I had no doubt that my father could orchestrate a draft-dodging episode for my benefit. He was an “I can get it for you wholesale” type of guy, a master parking ticket fixer, but I hoped I would never have to use his abilities for draft avoidance.  “4F” for medically unfit because of a skeletal defect would be preferable. But I was still a little surprised that he unabashedly offered to keep me out of harm’s way.

As much as military induction was nightmarish to me, it was not my dream to dodge the draft. I was no pro-war hawk, but the war was not Mr. Johnson’s War. It was America at war.

The Cambodian Incursion and the tragedy of four Kent State war protesters killed in 1970 had filled my college gym bleachers. We listened to faculty clamor for a vote to shut down the school and join the surging anti-war tidal wave. As I sat there with my conservative fraternity brothers, I felt more like an observer than a participant. The vast majority of my classmates applauded the pro-strike speeches with pep rally fervor. Certainly, it looked like the work-shirted professors were preaching to the choir. But the rhetoric didn’t sway me. Short of a mononucleosis outbreak, I wasn’t going to vote to close down the school.  My parents had paid for me to finish the semester and suffer through finals. Sure Vietnam was a quagmire, but in my mind, it was not enough of a disaster to sink a whole college semester.

Shortly after the rally in the gym, the entire school voted on whether to strike or not. The final tally was 1010 pro-strike,117 anti-strike and 32 abstentions. I was one of the abstentions. I was just being myself, someone who was not politicized enough to obscure his own feelings. But being 169 would haunt me more, as I could not envision potential draft evasion as an act to save the country from itself. It would just be an act to save my frightened ass.

On January 27, 1973, Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War. The draft was over and so was my keen personal interest in the war.

It remained uninteresting to me for the next 40 years. I didn’t stock my shelves with Vietnam War histories or memoirs. The only remnant of those years was the unfairness of student deferments.  Every matriculating student who was healthy should have been draft eligible.

Then, my father, who was 93 at the time, reframed my Vietnam-era memories.

We were in his assisted livingroom suite talking about his World War II days, where his memory was most fertile. He was telling a story about how his uncle knew this army officer who could ensure cushy clerk-typist military assignments or better yet, no assignments at all.

“Eventually, this officer got caught,” my father said with a trace of regret, implying that this crook could have helped him. He then went on about how he proactively tried in vain to get out of doing service time during the war, searching for a someone with selective service connections to help in this quest. It didn’t appear that he wasn’t ashamed of these draft dodging activities. It appeared that he was only disappointed that he couldn’t pull it off.

He had been my Greatest Generation father. Now, maybe he wasn’t.

I Googled “attitudes of conscripted men WW II” hoping to find some sort of cover-up in down playing draft dodging inclinations, but I didn’t find anything.

In my father’s obituary in The Boston Globe, there was no military star next to his name. I had forgotten to tell the funeral home to include it. My father might have gone in the service reluctantly, but he earned his ruptured duck, his honorable discharge pin.

And all I earned was a college sheepskin.

Bill Levine is a freelance writer residing in Belmont, Massachusetts. His essays have been published in Animal Wellness, The Boston Globe and Praxis Literary Journal.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016. Archival military items courtesy of Sean McNamara Rosemeyer.

 

 

 

 

The Soft Imperative

I ask my wife, “What language do they speak in Macedonia?”

It’s a Friday morning. This is our pre-breakfast quiet time. Usually we don’t say much early in the morning. What is there to always say? She’s reading a book about the Spanish Civil War and drinking her first cup of coffee. I’ve just clicked off the New Yorker, which I’m partially reading online these days. Anthony Lane has yawned at “Black Mass,” the new Johnny Depp movie, comparing it and Depp, unfavorably, to “Taxi” and James Cagney. I’m about to spread fig jam on a slice of toast.

 

soft imperative

She taps her spoon against her cup. It’s code. More coffee. I’ve told her she should just say “Coffee me!” when she wants more, the way, back in college days, guys would shout “Beer me!”

She turns a page. “Macedonian? Or maybe Greek.” She looks up. “You really should read this book. You never read the books I suggest.”

“I read The Swerve,” I say. “I started to read The Skin.”

“Started.”

It’s a new jar of jam. The jar pops when I twist the cap off. “Brian’s Fig Marmelade,” I read aloud. “From Macedonia. You wouldn’t think there would be a guy named Brian in Macedonia.”

She picks up the jar, squints at the fine print, and hands it back.

Between slices of toast, I borrow her iPad. “You’re right, Macedonian. It says the Macedonians are slavophones.”

She nods.

“Slavophones,” I say, waiting for her to make eye contact. “I would hate to be called a slavophone.” Another pregnant pause. “How about you?”

She taps her spoon against her cup. It’s code. More coffee. I’ve told her she should just say “Coffee me!” when she wants more, the way, back in college days, guys would shout “Beer me!” That was fun. Verbing the noun added to the casual derangement you felt on a beerful afternoon.

I make her a second cappuccino. This morning, thanks to “coffee me,” which my wife refuses to say, and thanks to Mount Everest and the New Yorker, I’m thinking about verbs. Anthony Lane also reviewed the new movie “Everest.” Too many characters, he writes, most of them under-developed. “The one thing they have in common,” he observes, “is the indomitable urge to use the word ‘summit’ as an intransitive verb. That takes guts.” As in, I would guess, We are here to summit, guys! Or: No, you go first. I’ve summited a few times already.

“Here you go.” I set her coffee down, admiring the foam. “Enjoy.”

“You know I hate that.”

I know she hates that, the universal server-ism you hear in restaurants these days. The plates are all delivered, the wine glasses filled, we’re ready to eat, and the server says, “Enjoy.” Not enjoy your dinner. Not enjoy yourselves. Just enjoy. The locution irks her no end.

It irks me too, but not to no end.

Later in the day I’m driving over to the blood depot, a couple of miles from the house. Every eight weeks I shed a pint. I do it both for the common good and for my personal benefit. (Back in college, the old beer-me days, I learned to call this psychological egoism. There’s no such thing as a selfless act. You beered your friends knowing they would beer you back. It was a social contract.) According to The American Journal of Epidemiology, blood donors are 88 percent less likely to suffer heart attack. Old blood has higher viscosity than the new stuff you make. So bleed me. I’m happy to give.

On the drive over there, I stop at a light behind a car with a personalized license plate: Be Well. It reminds me of an old friend, David Marvin Cooper, a laid back guy who always used to say, Be cool. It meant go with the flow, be open to the universe, or, sometimes, a little more sternly, don’t be bogue (dude). Be well says much the same thing, maybe more. Roll down your window and smell the roses. Dial down the Rush Limbaugh and turn up the Mozart. Accept road work as a part of life. It’s a philosophical concept. It gentles us, reminding strangers to be mindful. This driver is concerned, in his or her generalized and impersonal way, with way more than my wellbeing or my wellness.

A physician I saw for a short time, whenever I left her office, would touch me on the shoulder and say: Feel better. She also said apply ice, take your pain meds, no stairs. But then she capped it off with a holistic prescription that went beyond mere better-getting.

These are the soft state-of-being imperatives available to us today, helping us to be well and good.

The blood center is packed. I’ve made an appointment, but I still have to wait. I pretend to read the Red Cross book for a few minutes, picking out some diseases I might want to check up on (babesiosis, filariasis, spondylosis), then look at old news in used magazines, too many of which are about golf. During the interview and Q and A, the nurse takes my temperature and blood pressure, examines my arms. She asks me if I had a good breakfast, if I’ve had plenty of liquids. I tell her about Brian’s Fig Marmalade, trying to remember, as I do, if Macedonia is on the list of places the Red Cross is not cool with.

“Right or left?” she asks, meaning, Which arm?

I tell her I’m left-leaning. For me, it’s part of being well.

On the table, I make a fist. She inflates the blood pressure cuff and says I have nice veins. When the bleeding starts, I relax and roll the thingie in my hand. I watch local news on TV and try to dislodge a few fig seeds from my teeth. At one time, giving blood made me light-headed. Donating at work one day, I sat up too fast and felt a radical wobble in my legs. A blue shirt sat me back down and made me put my head between my knees. Another time I got the paper bag treatment. That was then. These days I’m manning up. I can give and give.

The nurse comes by again to check on me and my bag of blood. “Almost done,” she says. “You doing okay?”

I tell her I’m good. And well as well.

Wrapping my arm when it’s finished, she points to the juice and cookie table. “No strenuous activity today,” she says. “Watch a little TV. Do a little reading.”

On the way home I see the usual guy on the usual corner, holding a cardboard sign. In black felt pen he has written “PLEASE HELP.” Word has it there’s a meth ring going around. This guy might be an affiliate. Wouldn’t you know it, I come to a full stop right next to him.  “Look at their teeth,” I’ve been told. But I can’t. I just sit. Between me and him, a few feet, a universe. Somewhere in between the two categoricals—Get a job! Feed the poor—is the soft imperative, an intransitive zone.  Be well. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him wave his little sign. There’s no telling what help is, what’s good for both of us.

The light changes.

Go.

Rick Bailey is a writer who divides his time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino. His collection of essays, American English, Italian Chocolate, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. 
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.